Kody Keplinger, YA’s Leslie Knope

Kody Keplinger may be the Leslie Knope of Young Adult fiction. Like the “Parks and Recreation” public servant whom she adores, the unflagging Kentucky native is all about feminist positivity and five-year plans, and so far she’s right on track. As a seventeen-year-old high school senior, she wrote The DUFF, the New York Times-bestselling YA book about Bianca, a high school student who discovers she’s the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” of her ultra-hot besties. Now at the ripe old age of twenty-three, Keplinger is a New York City resident with four more published YA novels under her belt, and The DUFF has been adapted into a smart-as-a-whip, critically acclaimed teen flick starring Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Allison Janney, and Ken Jeong. I talked with Mz. Knope er Keplinger about the adaptation process, size acceptance, and the genius of Mae Whitman.

Lisa Rosman: Let’s start with brass tacks. What inspired you to write The DUFF while you were still a student?

Kody Keplinger: It was hearing the word DUFF being used in my school. That is not a word I made up. Actually, I did research on this after the fact – it apparently got popular on some reality TV dating show in the early 2000s – but I first heard it my senior year, when a girl was talking about a boy as “The DUFF.”

LR: Were you inspired by any books? Any movies?

KK: I loved Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because I’d never read a book that was so honest. And everything by Judy Blume, also because of the honesty. As an adult now, I love Courtney Summers. Her books have really, really compelling main characters that aren’t concerned with likability. I’m probably more influenced now by books, but as a teenager I was more influenced by teen movies. “Juno” came out while I was in high school so that was a big one for me, to the point where, when my editor compared my book to it, I was like, “Oh, she gets it.” Of course, “Mean Girls” is also forever going to be a favorite. And “Easy A,” which is based on The Scarlet Letter. I think “Easy A” is just genius. “10 Things I Hate About You,” which is a a modern adaptation of Shakespeare. And, going in a completely different, darker direction, I was obsessed with “Cruel Intentions,” an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons.

LR: Why do you think so many of these films – and your book – reference classic literature?

KK: I have a theory about why classic lit appears in a lot of teen movies and other YA, not just mine. Teenagers are really exposed to these stories in English class, and are in the time of life when you relate to the plights of a lot of these characters. I mean, being that age is so dramatic. My second book, Shut Out, is a modern retelling of Lysistrata. I thought it would be interesting to try that story in a high school setting, and I was very influenced by the teen movies of the ’90s that were inspired by classic lit.

LR: Bianca’s an interesting character because she’s not automatically “likable.” Do you relate to her?

KK: It’s funny, because I think people see more of me in Bianca than I do. That may be partly because there’s an assumption that fiction is always slightly nonfiction, and partly because she and I were both seventeen. I always tell people Bianca is me on my worst day, only she’s that way all the time. I was a really good girl, I followed the rules, and I wasn’t interested in writing about good girls. I was interested in characters who got angry sometimes, and whose actions were more like my dark thoughts.

LR: It’s so cool that Mae Whitman plays Bianca in the movie.

KK: Funny story: Back in 2010, just for fun I did a blog post about who I’d cast in a movie based on the book, and I said Mae Whitman would be perfect as Bianca. CBS Films did not even know this when they cast her! I had been worried about how some of Bianca’s darkness and sass would translate in a movie but while Mae plays it very close to the book, she manages to do it so you still totally empathize with her, even when she’s making wrong choices and being kind of snarky and moody. She does a really great job.

LR: The common wisdom is that Hollywood is more salacious than literature. But the movie “The DUFF” is actually a lot more sanitized than your book. Class differences fall by the wayside, Bianca’s alcoholic father isn’t even in the movie, and she’s sexually active with two different boys, which is actually pretty unusual for YA.

KK: The film really focused on the book’s main message, which is that every one of us is the DUFF. We’ve all been the weak link at some point. And a big reason some things were left out of the screenplay is they would have been R-rated. The book is marked at being “fifteen and up,” and there is not a fifteen-and-up movie. You can either go PG-13 or you can go R, in which case you eliminate a lot of your teenage audience. As for the dad – well, the movie’s more of a straight comedy than the book, and I don’t think you could do the stuff with Bianca’s dad’s drinking in a teen comedy film without losing a lot of the humor.

LR: You’re right. The reviews would say: “The tone was all over the place in this movie!” And the movie preserved the positive body-image messages, which were really important.

KK: Oh, yeah. I’m actually a big body-positive advocate. I do a lot of body-positive fashion blogging on Instagram, and this is something I really, really care about. So I didn’t want this to be a “makeover movie.” And I feel like it really succeeded in saying, “Embrace you, do you, dress like you.” [Bianca’s friend] Wesley actually has a line in the movie where he says to her, “I don’t know who you are by the way you dress.” It’s not like he’s telling her, “Dress super sexy,” or, “Dress in this way.” He’s telling her, “Dress like you.” And I’ve actually told that to so many people before, because I love fashion so much and I think it’s not about following trends. It’s about finding your style and who you are, and embracing it.

LR: That totally comes across. So what are you going to conquer next?

KK: Visiting the movie set was one of the coolest experiences of my life, and it solidified that I want to work in film or television. I’m open to both! I may be more of a television person, though, because I like the idea of exploring a character over many years. That’s something very interesting that you can’t really do in many other mediums. I also would really like to adapt one of my other books, or write an original screenplay. When I write, it kind of plays out in my head a little like a movie already. So I like the idea of writing something and then seeing people perform it. There’s something magical about it.

“The Duff” is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy